By Daniel Schwalm, Mid-City Messenger
At a public hearing on Tuesday (Oct. 12), the City Planning Commission decided not to make a recommendation to the City Council on the Phase III expansion of the New Orleans prison, a controversial plan to build a new facility to house and care for inmates diagnosed with a mental illness.
The commissioners reviewed a request for an amendment to an existing zoning ordinance to establish a conditional use permitting the prison expansion. The commissions’ decision does not carry legal authority, but can potentially sway the City Council’s final decision as to whether or not to allow the expansion to be built.
In their preliminary report, City Planning Commission staff members noted that they recognized concerns about incarceration of people with mental illnesses and the cost of the project as legitimate, but believed that they fell outside the purview of the commission.
They said that because the scope of their role is limited to “assessing the type of activity they generate; when, where, and how this activity occurs; vehicular traffic and parking impacts; noise impacts; environmental impacts; and aesthetic impacts,” and they did not expect the expansion to change the jail’s impact on the surrounding area, they recommended that the City Planning Commission approve the project.
Criminal justice reform activists, however, encouraged the commission to condemn the expansion. Dozens of New Orleans residents submitted public comments to the commission urging them to oppose the expansion. No public comments were submitted in favor of expanding the prison.
Many of the opponents were affiliated with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, which organized a jazz-funeral-style protest on Saturday (Oct. 9) to express opposition to the planned expansion.
“It’s great that New Orleanians are continuing to wake up to what true public safety means,” said Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “True public safety does not mean caging our neighbors for their mental health diagnosis. It means providing safe alternatives to incarceration that all members of our community can access.”
Commissioners were split on the issue, with some agreeing with the staff recommendation and saying that they should concern themselves strictly with the land-use concerns, while others said that the commission had broader responsibilities to consider.
“The charge of this commission is to promote the public health, safety and welfare of the New Orleans community, not solely to look at what is allowable,” Commissioner Suzanne Mobley said.
Commissioner Kathleen Lunn also encouraged her fellow commissioners to condemn the jail expansion. She quoted from the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which says that the purpose of zoning regulation is “to encourage and promote, in accordance with present and future needs, the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the City of New Orleans.”
Lunn filed a motion to recommend that the City Council deny the permit, which Mobley seconded. That motion failed by a vote of 5-3 as the majority of the commissioners decided that they should stick to the narrow land-use considerations.
“I think this is a policy decision for the policy makers,” Commissioner Kelly Brown said.
Commissioner Jonathan Stewart said he was inclined to vote in favor of approving the permit because he felt that expanding the jail would “give the city something to put in their toolbox” in case the need for more jail space were to arise in the future.
Brown made a motion to recommend that the City Council approve the zoning variance, but that vote resulted in a 4-4 tie. Unable to reach a consensus, the City Planning Commission passed the matter on to the City Council without a recommendation.
The City Planning Commission will also consider an alternative plan to retrofit the existing jail to accommodate inmates with mental illnesses at a later date.
Loyola University criminology professor Kelly Frailing, who studies the treatment of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system, said expanding the prison would help no one.
“If there’s unoccupied jail space, then the response almost always is to find things to criminalize that don’t need to be criminalized and lock more people up,” Frailing said.
However, she said that focusing on the choice between the expansion or the retrofit distracts from the bigger picture.
“When we ask that question, we’re really losing the forest for the trees,” she said. “What we really need to ask is how we can build a functioning mental health system — one that actually helps people instead of making their mental health worse.”
She said that in the long term, New Orleans — and the whole country — needs to build a mental health care system that is entirely separate from the criminal justice system.
In the short term, however, the amendment to allow a conditional use for the prison expansion will go before the City Council.
Reporter Daniel Schwalm can be reached at email@example.com.